Palace emissaries arrive in KL for GPH-MILF talks
MANILA, Philippines – The time is now.
This what government peace panel chair Miriam Coronel-Ferrer said when the 42nd round of peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) opened on Thursday, December 5.
Indicating how urgent this round of talks is, President Benigno Aquino III once again sent his spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, to Kuala Lumpur. Lacierda arrived at the Palace of the Golden Horses on Saturday, December 7, with Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles and Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Governor Mujiv Hataman.
Before any deal is signed, both sides need to have the approval of their respective principals – MILF chief Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and President Benigno Aquino III.
Lacierda's presence will help make communication easier with the President, who is presently besieged by one calamity after another, the latest and most destructive being Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).
The last time Lacierda flew to Kuala Lumpur, both sides ended up signing a crucial deal on how wealth will be shared between the proposed Bangsamoro political entity and the national government. (READ: Inside story: The deal-breaker in GPH-MILF talks)
This time around, the agenda is power-sharing – the "heart" of the talks, according to MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal.
This round comes 3 months after MILF's rival group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), attacked and held Zamboanga City hostage after it felt left out of the peace process. (READ: Zambo crisis: The fog of war)
The parties envision a "ministerial" form of government for the Bangsamoro, where people elect entire parties, instead of individuals, to a legislative assembly and the elected party members, in turn, elect the minister among themselves.
Both sides have been stuck at negotiations on power-sharing for over two months. In the last round of formal talks, they failed to arrive at a deal despite holding a session for more than 18 hours.
In a bid to push the process forward, sources from both sides said selected members of the peace panels met in two executive sessions in Kuala Lumpur before this round of negotiations.
Executive sessions are informal, off-the-record meetings – a common practice in the GPH-MILF talks under the Aquino administration. It may be held outside or during the negotiations themselves.
Both sides are two annexes away from signing a final peace pact.
Bangsamoro waters: Potential deal-breaker?
Iqbal has repeatedly said negotiations on jurisdiction over internal or territorial waters in the 12-mile limit covering the Sulu Sea and Moro Gulf is the most difficult part of the talks.
For this round, it appears that both sides are close to arriving at a consensus.
In her opening statement, Ferrer said they have forged a new concept called the "Bangsamoro waters" – a "unique" water regime that can't be found in other parts of the country.
"We know that there are details that we still need to come to terms with. But none are so great as to throw away everything that has been achieved," Ferrer said.
What's at stake? The deal would set clear parameters over the jurisdiction of the central and Bangsamoro government over water domains in the proposed areas under the Bangsamoro government.
It would prevent legal questions as in the case of the Malampaya natural gas operations in Palawan.
During the Arroyo administration, the government argued that the Malampaya operation is offshore and part of national territory, not Palawan. The government has used this argument to defend its stand that Malampaya revenues, which should be split 60-40 in favor of the national government under the law, should go to the national government only.
An MILF source said both sides are working at creating a special arrangement on how potential revenues from living and non-living sources from the Bangsamoro waters will be shared, separate from the wealth-sharing deal signed in July.
Arms deal parked this round
The panels are leaving discussions on the normalization annex, which includes the sensitive issues of decommissioning, for the next round.
In his opening statement, Iqbal said it is more reasonable to finish the power-sharing annex first for this round since it will allow the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) – the body tasked to draft the Basic Law – to move forward with public consultations.
The Transition Commission has set April 2014 as the deadline to finish the draft law after consulting with members of Congress, said Iqbal, who is also the chair of the BTC.
The Aquino administration wants to finish the transition from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao towards the new Bangsamoro political entity before Aquino steps down from office in 2016.
Aside from the urgency of the power-sharing annex, Iqbal said taking the arms deal in the final stages of the negotiations is also a "confidence-building measure of sorts to make up for the popular notion that the government is only interested in dismantling and disarming the MILF through a glamorized scheme called “decommissioning.”
From KL to Mindanao
As the peace panels resumed talks in Kuala Lumpur, a skirmish occurred in Marawi City. On Friday, December 6, the MILF abducted the city's police chief over the arrest of two MILF members for illegal possession of firearms. The rebel group released the police chief after a few hours.
The matter is now under investigation for a possible violation of the ceasefire accord between both sides.
In a statement, Deles said: "In accordance with the rules and procedures agreed upon between the GPH and MILF, investigations will be conducted immediately by the joint committees. As we have declared many times before, what we are after is peace with justice. We will rely on the established mechanisms to ensure that the rule of law is followed and justice is duly served."
The incident is nothing compared to the magnitude of conflict when the MILF's rival group, the Moro National Liberation Front – feeling left out of the peace process – attacked and held Zamboanga City hostage in September for 20 days. (READ: Zambo crisis: The fog of war)
As the government and MILF peace panels hammer out the final details of the power-sharing annex, the tripartite review on the 1996 peace agreement signed by the government and the MNLF hangs in the balance.
Will a signed deal this round once raise hopes that the 4-decades old struggle will finally end?
Despite the time constaints and pressures from various parties, both sides are erring on the side of caution. As Iqbal said, "any haphazard or half-baked agreement will only worsen the conflict in Mindanao." - Rappler.com